The COVID-19 response has seen rapid, iterative design driven by strong partnerships between researchers, clinicians and industry. Will this ultimately lead to a new way of working that goes from idea to product in record time?
Australia has so far avoided the high infection rate and overtaxed medical facilities experienced in other parts of the world due to COVID-19. But ramped-up local efforts to produce medical devices will prepare us for future pandemics and clinical needs by establishing more efficient ways of taking technology from the lab to the frontline in hospitals and clinics.
According to biomedical engineer Professor David Grayden, Director of the University of Melbourne’s MedTech platform and Clifford Chair of Neural Engineering, working closely with hospitals and industry during COVID-19 has allowed universities to meet immediate clinical needs.
“I think in the future what we’re going to see is increasing interactions between hospitals, industry and universities,” he said, adding geographic hubs would foster collaboration.
The need for speed
To explore insights gained during the public health crisis, Engineers Australia and the University of Melbourne hosted a panel discussion titled Innovation During COVID-19.
As well as Grayden, the panel included: Professor Jason Monty, Head of the university’s Mechanical Engineering Department; Professor Karin Verspoor, Director of Health Technologies for Melbourne School of Engineering; and Eric Bert, COO at 3DMEDiTECH and a mechanical engineer with more than 30 years’ experience in disruptive technology management.
The discussion focused on collaboration between the research, health and industry sectors to allow for more agile commercialisation without compromising quality and safety.
Monty said that in the past, universities had received complaints that they were too slow – the agility was not there to meet the immediate needs of clinicians.
“I think during this COVID experience, we’ve all become more agile,” he said, adding that this would put universities in a better position to work not just with the medtech industry, but all industries.
Grayden said that during the COVID-19 response, universities have been very well placed to develop prototypes across multiple disciplines.
“Engineering, medicine and even architecture [have come] together to find prototypes,” he added.
Communications technology, systematic data collection and the use of AI insights are also helping in the ongoing fight against the pandemic. The widespread use and rapid adoption of telehealth and remote monitoring has allowed patients to access medical care for a range of conditions.
“The business of medicine doesn’t have to stop due to the limitations of face-to-face contact,” Verspoor said.
Contact tracing and clinical data are key to monitoring and limiting the spread of COVID-19. She emphasised the importance of security in the storage and accessibility of data, as well the trust the community is placing in government to collect and interpret it.
Particularly within the app sector, Verspoor noted the growing appetite for technologies that support a wide range of applications – from clinical decision-making to managing the mental health of people working from home.
“People have seen innovation in that technology really being driven at lightning speed,” she said.
Coordination is key
Bert is currently the Chief Operations Officer of 3DMEDiTech, which uses advanced 3D-scanning and printing technologies to manufacture tailored medical devices and implants.
During the pandemic response, his company developed and delivered a nasopharyngeal swab to collect samples to test for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Bert said technologists and regulatory authorities learned to work together more closely during the crisis to analyse the benefits and risks of medical technologies, as well as collaborate more effectively to fast-track innovation without compromising safety.
Grayden added that embedding engineering students in hospitals through programs such as the University of Melbourne’s BioDesign Innovation course was also helping to foster collaboration and produce career-ready graduates.
Australia is in the fortunate position of not needing to deploy ventilators and other life-saving medical devices in the numbers initially anticipated. However, Monty believes the collaborative effort to take technologies more quickly and smoothly from concept to commercialisation will pay off in the long term.
“I don’t think anything should be considered a waste of time during this process – I think it will make us better prepared for the future,” he said.
View the full recording of the Innovation During COVID-19 panel discussion below: